Readers of Freakonomics have met this author before: Sudhir Venkatesh was the source of that book’s fascinating explanation of why so many drug dealers live with their moms. A graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago during America’s crack epidemic, Venkatesh spent years around members of the city’s Black Kings gang. He even got a copy of the gang’s ledgers, which showed that, while a few top leaders of the organization were paid handsomely, the majority of drug sellers–the guys on the street, those most at risk of arrest and injury–earned very little. The compensation scale, in other words, was very much like that of many major American corporations. The dealers lived with their moms because they had to.
Following the success of Freakonomics, somebody realized that Venkatesh–now a tenured professor at Columbia University–probably had a pretty interesting story to tell about his gang days too, one that might attract a larger audience than his two books of sociology, Off the Books and American Project. And so we have the strangely titled Gang Leader for a Day.
It gets off to a brilliant start. Venkatesh, a ponytailed math major from suburban San Diego and the son of immigrants from India (his father is a professor too), wanders from cosseted Hyde Park into one of the poor neighborhoods that surround the university on Chicago’s South Side. His professor, William Julius Wilson, is mounting a new study of urban poverty, and Venkatesh has volunteered to help administer a questionnaire. He’s looking for young black men, and Census data in the university library point him toward a building in the Lake Park housing projects in nearby Oakland.
Told to get lost by gang members who are selling drugs in the lobby of the first building he enters, he moves on to a second. This lobby is deserted; seeking subjects to interview, Venkatesh climbs up a smelly staircase to the fourth or fifth floor, clipboard in hand. There he finds a group of his intended demographic shooting dice. Suspecting he’s been sent by a rival gang of Mexicans, they circle around, one brandishing a knife; as Venkatesh tells it, he goes ahead with his administrative task and asks the first question on the survey: “How does it feel to be black and poor?” The multiple-choice answers are “very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good.”
“Fuck you!” says one man. “You got to be fucking kidding me.”
The question is, indeed, so ludicrous that the reader not only applauds the gang member but may be forgiven for wondering if the celebrated Professor Wilson really sent his graduate student out on such a risible mission, or even whether–forgive me–this little part of the tale, which took place back in 1989, is apocryphal.
But no matter. The more important thing is that Venkatesh, told not to leave, is eventually confronted by the gang’s leader, J.T., with whom he establishes a relationship that lasts for years. J.T., with “a few glittery gold teeth, a sizable diamond earring, and deep, hollow eyes that fixed on mine without giving away anything,” quickly takes charge of the situation:
He took the questionnaire from my hand, barely glanced at it, then handed it back. Everything he did, every move he made, was deliberate and forceful.
I read him the same question that I had read the others. He didn’t laugh, but he smiled. How does it feel to be black and poor?
”I’m not black,” he answered, looking around at the others knowingly.
”Well, then, how does it feel to be African American and poor?” I tried to sound apologetic, worried that I had offended him.
”I’m not African-American either. I’m a nigger…. Niggers are the ones who live in this building. African Americans live in the suburbs. African Americans wear ties to work. Niggers can’t find no work.